BY STACIE LETT CAIN
Statesville City Manager Ron Smith provided an immediate answer when he was asked to name the top accomplishment at this week’s City Council retreat.
“That we have been given authority to create a strategic plan for the future of the City is enough for me to say this retreat was a complete success,” he explained. “We have accomplished a lot in these two days, but that, to me, alone is enough.”
A strategic plan is exactly what council members Steve Johnson and David Jones have been pushing for.
“We have to have a sense of where we are, where we are going,” said Jones, who was elected last fall. “We have to devise a plan setting out the City’s priorities, identifying the needs and determining the funds available. That’s the only way to do it.”
A majority of the council agreed and directed the City staff to together a plan for that purpose.
But that was far from the only thing the council accomplish during the two-day retreat, which was geared at forging a bond between members and staff and acting as a catalyst for those tasked with steering the course of the City of Statesville.
Investing in Electric workers
The Council also voted unanimously to allow the city manager to offer pay increases, the total of which would not exceed $23,000 per month, to electrical workers as an incentive to retain them.
“We are looking at paying our people nearly 42 percent less than they could earn at Duke Energy or EnergyUnited,” said Director of Electric Utilities John McLaga. “They love their jobs and they love working for this wonderful city, but with a difference in pay of that much, it’s not hard to see why they choose to go.”
McLaga explained that it costs the City $115,000 in training to replace a journeyman electrician when someone chooses to leave to take employment elsewhere. Paying to retain a trained employee seems to be a better investment, McLaga said.
“We not only lose a good employee and experience but we also lose their ability to teach the younger electric workers,” he explained. “We don’t want to have a young and inexperienced work force. We want to retain our experienced journeymen so they can continue to pass their education and experience on to the lesser experienced employees coming up behind them. We can’t do that if we are losing them to other companies.”
In addition to financial ramifications, safety is also a big concern with a younger, less experienced work force in the City Electric Department. It takes a new employee about five years to become proficient and at least 10 years to achieve mastery. Without sufficient experience, safety suffers.
“This isn’t the kind of job you can learn solely from a book,” McLaga explained. “This is a get-your-hands-dirty, boots-on-the-ground learning curve and it takes time. Every time we lose an employee we start that process over again and it sets us back.”
The City Council agreed retaining these employees is critical.
“We should have done this a long time ago,” said Councilman C.O. Johnson. “These employees put their lives on the line to keep our utilities on during storms and work hard to make sure our services aren’t interrupted. We should have made this happen before.”
But the electric employees aren’t the only city workers who are making well below the area average when beginning employment with our city. Police officers in Statesville are also seeing lower starting salaries than neighboring cities and counties.
According to a Classification and Compensation Assessment presented to council members by A.J. Gallagher & Company, many city employees are seeing much smaller pay checks, less advancement and educational opportunities and lesser benefits than neighboring counties and communities. That is causing the city to lose employees to those who offer more, including the private sector.
Police Chief David Addison said his department is hiring new officers at a rate nearly $2,000 less than many neighboring communities.
“It is very difficult to give them a reason that they would want to be here instead of where they can more easily support themselves and their families,” Addison explained. “People who work here do so because they love this City but it is a lot to ask that they do it at a detriment to themselves and their families.”
Minimum Housing Standards enforcement
Council members agreed to ramp up enforcement efforts for housing throughout the city, and add staffing to ensure this work is done.
“In a nutshell, we have been doing this wrong,” explained Smith. “The way that the Code is written, it should be applied to both occupied and unoccupied dwellings. However, we have always opted, mostly out of necessity, to only enforce in occupied dwellings. We just didn’t have the manpower to do both.”
But now that it is understood that application applies to unoccupied dwellings as well, the need for addition manpower is obvious to City staff.
“In light of this change in application, we really are in need of another full-time Housing Inspector to handle this workload,” explained Assistant Planning Director Sherry Ashley. “Since the last full-time director retired we have only filled that position with a part-time employee working two days a week. That just isn’t sufficient.”
The Council voted to increase the part-time position of Housing Inspector to three days a week and begin the search to fill a full-time position within the department.
A Collaborative Effort
Although many contentious issues were discussed during the two-day retreat, there was a sense of accomplishment that seemed to override any differences of opinion.
“You should all be very proud of what you have accomplished here today — not just in the issues and policies we have discussed, but in the way you all worked together to reach those ends,” said Geraldine Gardner, executive director of Centralina Council of Governments, who acted as a facilitator for the retreat.
“We followed some established core values and showed each other respect and you all showed that even though passionate about your representation of your constituents, you can work together to benefit the city as a whole.”